There’s a convention from the Golden Age of Musical Theater, where two characters about to fall in love imagine what life would be like if they were together. This “conditional love song” as it is often called, is evidently a device for driving the plot. But it got me thinking: What songs from the American Songbook explore this kind of conditional (rather than unconditional) love? So this week on the show, we’re diving into the hypothetical, as we feature songs that all explore the concept of “if,” like “If I was a bell”, “If I had you”, and “Good job if you can get it.”
The “conditional love song”
In this show, I draw inspiration from the world of musical theater and explore a type of song that became a convention in the golden age of American musical comedy: the conditional love song.
I can’t take credit for this concept. It was first brought to my attention by author and Broadway producer Jack Viertel in his book The Secret Life of American Musical. In it, he breaks down some common tropes in musicals: everything from the familiar opening and finale to more esoteric concepts like the 11 o’clock number and the song “I want.”
Viertel describes the “conditional love song” as something that usually happens in the first act, where the two romantic leads sing together for the first time addressing the issue of love, but not necessarily love. with each other. Assumptions are offered, conditions must be met, certain things must change for them to finally fall in love – in other words, the entire plot of the musical must unfold before these two protagonists can finally reunite. Many of these conditional love songs have become standards in the American pop music world, and these standards are what I want to focus on this hour.
Viertel describes a particular song as the not ultra from the conditional love song: “If I loved you.” It comes from the 1945 musical Carousel by Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammersteinwhich was itself based on an older Hungarian play called Liliom. In this song, the two romantic leads – carousel barker Billy Bigelow and lowly carpenter Julie Jordan – are too shy to express their love for each other so early in the series, so they talk wholeheartedly. safety in assumptions instead. This declaration of love in the subjunctive is all the more poignant as Billy dies before either of them can truly express how they really feel.
Here is a romantic version of this song a few years later from Jo Stafford and the Paul Weston Orchestra.
Other Types of Conditional Love Songs
In the context of the musical, the “conditional love song” doesn’t have to deal directly with hypothetical…”if this, then that”. Sometimes it’s just the characters in Act I indicating that they are not lovers – only to realize (or admit) in Act II that in fact they were in love all the way.
If you know a bit of Broadway history, it’s probably no surprise that Oscar Hammerstein was the lyricist primarily responsible for these types of songs in the shows. He was a master craftsman at plot building, so by adding these songs of conditional, uncertain, or imagined love to the first act, he creates the driving force of the show.
There is a conditional love song, for example, in Rodgers and Hammerstein Oklahoma from 1943, a musical often cited as the first musical of the Golden Age. In the song of the first act “People will say we’re in love,” the two romantic leads sing of outwardly denying their feelings of love for each other, before finally falling in love in the final act.
Hammerstein had done this kind of thing before Oklahoma. In his musical Show boatthat he wrote with Jerome Kern in 1926, there is the song “Persuade,” sung in the first act by the river player Ravenal and the young actress and singer Magnolia. The two have just met and can’t admit they love each other yet, so instead, in this song, they “just pretend” they’re in love.
The conditional love songs of Broadway shows really speak to the romantic conflict that drives the plot. Romantic drivers yearn for love, lack the courage to pursue the love that stands before them, or the knowledge to realize that this person they are up against in their true love after all.
This is perhaps best illustrated in song “I will know” of guys and dolls by Frank Loesser, where the two protagonists – sinful gambler Sky Masterson and his romantic foil, nun missionary Sarah Brown – sing to find out exactly what will happen when they meet their true love. Their ideas about love are completely opposite. Of course, we the audience realize that this hypothetical meeting of lovers has happened before – Sky and Sarah, the unlikely couple, have met before.
A similar kind of conditional love song is “This Can’t Be Love” of the Richard Rodgers of 1938 and Lorenz Hart musical The Boys of Syracuse. This tune, like “I’ll Know”, is about not realizing the love that’s standing in front of your face.
Other conditional love songs from classic musicals include “They say it’s wonderful” from 1946 IrvingBerlin musical Annie take your gunWhere “Good job if you can get it,” from 1937 George and Ira Gershwin music movie A damsel in distress. In each of these songs, an imagined and idealized image of love is presented as something unknown and unrealized. And of course, over the course of every musical, that image of true love eventually comes into focus.
Let’s step away from the conditional love song of the American musical for a moment, but continue to explore the subjunctive mood in popular song.
Certainty in love is certainly a great thing. But does it inspire a great song? Uncertaintyon the other hand – this question of “if only they loved me” — can create an intensity of emotion that can open up fascinating creative avenues for songwriters to explore.
“If” songs can be found in American and British popular song throughout the 20th century. A classic example from the 1920s is in the 1928 song “If I had you,” written by the duo of British composers jimmy campbell and Reg Connellywith American songwriter Ted Shapiro. Campbell and Connelly helped write several songs that found success on both sides of the pond, including “Show Me The Way To Go Home”, “Goodnight Sweetheart”, and “Try A Little Tenderness”.
Another early example is the slightly more lacive “If I Could Be With You (One Hour Tonight)” an American standard dating from 1926, written by the pianist stride James P. Johnsonwith lyrics by Henri Cremier. Early recordings of the melody were made by Clarence Williams, Ruth Etting and Louis Armstrong, with later recordings by singers like Kay Starr and Carmen McRae.
Or take a song like “If you were mine,” written by Matty Malneck with lyrics by Johnny Mercier in 1935, first sung by Billie Holiday that year. This song, like “If I Had You” and “If I Could Be With You,” is about the big things that would happen if only that special someone loved them.
Some “if” songs, however, explore the opposite idea: all the terrible things that could happen if you were to lose love. In this category we have the Ralph Rainer and Leo Robin adjust “If I Should Lose You” or the song “If you are going to,” written by Michael Emer in 1947 as “If you were leaving” and translated into English by Geoffrey Parson.
While the music of songs like “If I Had You” or “If You Were Mine” is often upbeat, the music and arrangement of these opposite genres of “if” songs, as you’ll hear, are decidedly more mysterious. , dissonant, and angular. june christy The 1947 version of “If I Should Lose You” is a particularly interesting arrangement. It was organized by Frank Devolwho also organized Nat King Cole’s 1948 number 1 hit song “The Nature Boy.” If you listen closely, you’ll hear that DeVol borrowed aspects of his previous arrangement for “If I Should Lose You” on “Nature Boy” a few months later.
“If” songs abound in the American Songbook. A few that come to mind include Lerner and Loewe, “If I Ever Leave You” by Noel Coward “If Love Was Everything” At Tadd Dameron’s “If you could see me now,” etc
Earlier, we discussed “I’ll Know,” a conditional love song about imagined future love from the Broadway musical. guys and dolls. This same musical also has a famous “if” song. In the song “If I Were a Bell” “if” is used in a very different way.
In this song, love is certain. Missionary Sarah Brown has definitely fallen in love with mischievous gambler Sky Masterson, and is ready to declare him (drunk) to the world – or at least to the patrons of a seedy Havana nightclub. So, she uses the word “if” to help her draw comparisons to how wonderful she feels.
Jack Vietel, The Secret Life of American Musicals: How Broadway Shows Are Made (Macmillan, 2016)
Amanda Prahl, “If I Loved You: The Evolution of the Conditional Love Song in Musical Theater” (https://howlround.com/if-i-loved-you)